The story about how their band formed is a rather good one. The year was 2007, and Joe Lewis was working at a pawn shop in the Lone Star State’s capital and spending his time playing guitar and delivering improvisational songs at open mic nights and playing with his blues trio at weekly gigs here and there. Ernst, then a member of the University of Texas Music and Entertainment Committee, was impressed enough with Lewis’s playing to book him to open for Little Richard at the University’s annual Forty Acres Fest.
“Yeah, I originally approached him to do the Little Richard thing because he had a reputation around town – and through that we all got to be good friends,” recalls Ernst, the desolate and dusty miles of Arizona no doubt ticking by on the odometer. “The band he was in, his backing band at the time, they had left to go on tour or something like that. He’d been offered a show but didn’t have a backing group! So some of my friends and I learned his songs and started playing with him.” Upon receiving local acclaim for their performances, they started touring as an official band – eventually opening for bands such as Spoon and Okkervil River.
Their first EP, Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is! was released in early 2009, followed two months later by a debut LP of the same title. Did Lewis and his Honeybears decide that there were more stories to tell on the EP? “I think that the EP was just an opportunity to put something out in advance of the album, so we knew that a couple of songs would be out on the full-length,” Ernst reveals. “It was the idea of the record label [Lost Highway] to put something out first that maybe they could get the press to start talking about, and then follow up with the record a couple of months later. But there’s a couple of songs on [the EP] that you can’t get anywhere else!”
The release of Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is! coincided with their performance at the 2009 SXSW Festival, where they were named one of the ‘Ten Bands Set To Break Out’ by Esquire Magazine. Ernst is pretty understated and nonchalant about the complement. “I guess it’s kind of cool,” he says humbly. “I heard about that but there’s just so many bands that were playing that week it’s kind of hard to stick out from everybody else. Our first record came out that week in the middle of it, and the next one came out exactly two years later – it’s a great time to put out a record if you’re from Austin, ’cause a bunch of folks from outside of Austin are there, checking you out.”
In March of this year, almost two years exactly after their debut, they released their second album, the scorching blues/rock hybrid Scandalous. I asked Ernst about the recording of it, and if their methods in the studio were different than with their first record. “Well, we toured pretty much non-stop after the release of the first one,” he says, “so it was certainly harder to get together and focus on doing another record, ’cause we were out of town and doing shows all the time. It was definitely, at least from my perspective, hard to come up with enough songs but once we got in [the studio] I thought it turned out well – better than the first one! So we were all pretty excited about it.”
But during all that non-stop touring, did they get a chance to play around with new ideas while performing? “Yeah, kind of,” he admits, “but it’s pretty hard. There’s not really a lot of downtime: wake up, find a place to have breakfast, drive all day and get to the club at night and do a show and then – there’s just not a lot of time to decompress and write something!”
All that road-time does result in great stories, however. One single off Scandalous that really sticks out is Mustang Ranch. Based on a surreal visit to the, er, titular Nevada love-shack, the song (and its hilariously over-the-top video) is a rollicking exercise in good, old-fashioned blues rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a hoot and a holler, I tell Ernst. “Yeah!” he exclaims. “It may be embellished a bit, but it’s basically from our experience. We’re on the West Coast [San Diego] now; and there are a lot of cool places to see and things to do. But yeah, that would be one of the more ‘intimate’ stories from the road.”
Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears have visited Australia a couple of times before – most noticeably for Splendour In the Grass in 2009. Are they getting excited? “Yeah, man,” he says brightly. “This’ll be our third time. And Meredith looks great! The lineup is awesome and sounds really cool; it looks like a really cool bill. The last time we were over there, Joe stayed a couple of extra days and did an episode of that show RockWiz. So they put [the episode] online and we watched it – it was really funny and turned out pretty good, so hopefully some people caught it over there.”
How did Joe do? I ask. Ernst laughs out loud. “He did really good, man! His team won! And he got a bunch of screen time as well. It’s pretty funny though – I can’t remember who he was paired up with [it was Linda Bull], but it’s certainly a different kind of show than anything we have at home!”
BY THOMAS BAILEY